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Plant Milk? Are you nuts?

Firstly, apologies to vegans and non-dairy vegetarians, who may think I am being rude, but it’s just a play on words, honestly! Of course you aren’t nuts, it’s your choice of way of life. Personally, I love plants, growing, eating or anything – but I do draw the line at any whacky ideas that provide no flavour. Fortunately, most plant milks have a lot to offer in terms of both health and taste.

The most common types of plant milk

Probably the most common types of plant milk are those made from nuts. It’s not a new idea, or nouvelle cuisine or a fad. You can trace the history back to medieval times for most nut milks, but you might be surprised to hear that the earliest nut milk was tiger nut milk, which goes way back in culinary terms to over 2,000 years and was introduced to Europe from North Africa and India. 

Coconut milk (what everyone associates with Far Eastern and Indian dishes), also has a long history and can be dated to 14th Century. I remember drinking coconut milk by the roadside on one of my Indian trips and thinking ‘tastes better in a culinary delight than out of it’!

I have always found that soy milk is a tug of war between love it and hate it, and it also gets negative press when it comes to health concerns. It is by no means as popular as other plant-based milks and is not particularly ‘family friendly’ (it should not be given to babies or very young children). As usual, let’s blame it all on the female of the species – soy milk has a major area of concern; it is scientifically thought that certain isoflavones in soy ‘mimic’ the female reproductive organs. I am not quite sure what will happen after that! Are us women going to grow babies if we drink it? Perhaps we no longer need the male of the species? Sorry, I just had to throw that in there. The only soy I enjoy is in soy sauce.

Statistics show that over 25% of the UK, Europe and the US have converted to plant milk. Its popularity started to escalate in the 1990’s with almond milk being the most consumed. There has also been an increasing demand for rice milks, and this desire has not only touched the coffee market, but also the ‘shakes’ market. Evolution is good, but have you ever noticed that when a food product evolves or develops into different flavours, textures, health benefits etc., that it automatically carries a high price tag? Funny that.

From evolution can come revolution – good old Starbucks used to charge extra for ‘non-dairy milk’, but have since offered those at the same price as dairy, going as far as to provide their drinks with at least 10 different flavours, mainly nut offerings. But over 15 months of scientific development they offer their own vegan ‘special blend’. It’s a combo of light rice milk, hazelnuts and cashews. Have you tried it – I have, and it is actually (surprisingly to me) quite palatable.

Plant milks – pros and cons in a ‘nutshell’

It’s important to point out the most pertinent reasons for dropping udders in favour of plant-based milk.

For me, the first reason should be health, so if you are unfortunate enough to have an allergy or intolerance towards dairy products, alternative milks are a good start. Also, some plant milks contain more fibre than dairy, and the majority are fortified (iron may be your concern), whereas animal milks are not. They can also contain more essential vitamins such as the omega varieties.

Other elements to consider are those of environmental concern. If you are concerned about the environment, choose your plant milks carefully. Many of the milks can be developed from plants that are grown in soil treated with pesticides, including weed killer which is carcinogenic. Unfortunately, this can be the case with the very popular oat milk, so whenever you make your milk choices, you need to check this out. You are certainly safer with organic varieties, but yet again, your pocket gets hit with the higher price.

If your concerns lie in the direction of sustainability and carbon footprint, you may want to try potato milk – yes, milk made from potatoes! I haven’t tried it, not sure if I want to, but it does have a very low carbon footprint and it is more sustainable, needing less water to produce than other milks.

This is just a bit of info, to talk about every vegan alternative would be like an encyclopedia. The gist of the whole article is for you to neither negate or approve of a specific type of non-dairy milk – there is a whole lot more to it than that. You may think that researching what you put in your coffee or tea is too much of a slog, but think about cooking with these products as well, and whether you want the right taste or the foul one, or even whether a recipe will actually work!

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Bev Perkins

An experienced chef, recipe developer, food writer and qualified nutritionist, Bev’s career has encompassed over 40 years. Educated in London and Paris, and with an unquenchable thirst for travelling, Bev’s passion for cooking evolved with a deep desire to learn about every cuisine in the globe, so whilst resident in Paris she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu (formerly L’Ecole Culinaire de Paris) and spent two years learning her art. She furthered her experience working in restaurants in all corners of the world from bistros to Michelin-Starred establishments and finally with her own catering company providing food to both corporate and individual clients. An experienced writer and editor, Bev is never happier than with a pen in one hand and cookery book in the other!

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